Crist’s switch is Dems’ gain

On June 7, 2009, I wrote about the budding Republican Senate primary battle between Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio:
“This is a war of attrition, and 14 months will be more than enough for the combined might of the conservative movement to grind Crist down. Republican primary voters aren’t interested in moderation or practicality, and Crist can’t deliver the ideological purity they demand. The poll numbers should tighten by the first quarter of 2010, and Crist seems likely to face the same dilemma that Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) wrestled with a short while ago — can he remain a Republican and win a primary?”

When I wrote that, Crist led 54-23 in the polls, but Rubio didn’t need anywhere near 14 months to take the lead. Late last week, Crist finally bowed to the inevitable, abandoning the GOP for an Independent Senate bid. In essence, Rubio won his primary without a single vote cast, and without running a single television ad until mid-March, well after he had overtaken the supposedly popular governor in the polls. As had been clear for so long, there was no way today’s rejuvenated conservative movement would suffer a Republican of Crist’s pedigree — the nearly extinct so-called moderate.

ADVERTISEMENT
It was certainly a smart primary challenge. The Democratic bench is weak in the state, and its top Democratic stars sat the race out, expecting a coronation for the incumbent governor. The Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek, wasn’t getting much traction in the race. Conservatives realized that if they could oust Crist in their closed primary, they had a real shot at taking a Senate seat with an up-and-coming true believer.

The strategy didn’t take long to prove itself. By March, Mason-Dixon had Rubio beating Meek in a two-way match-up 44-29. Odds were excellent that come November, Rubio would cruise to victory.

Crist’s best play would’ve been a switch to the Democratic Party late last year. Research 2000 polled such a match-up for Daily Kos in December and found that Crist held a 45-34 lead in such a scenario, with the bulk of undecideds, 32 percent, coming from Democrats (likely confused as to why we were asking that question). Crist could’ve used the Democratic machine to aid his bid, while Democrats would’ve gotten their top-tier challenger for the race.

Instead, Crist tacked right in a months-long, pathetic and patently disingenuous attempt to curry favor with conservative primary voters. Failing that, and unwilling to bow out gracefully, Crist had no other recourse but to turn Independent.

Crist’s travails are certainly great news for Democrats, who now have a chance to pick up the Senate seat with a plurality of the vote; Meek’s numbers have steadily improved over time, and he’s competitive in a three-way race. Better yet, Crist may go to war against his former party; perhaps he’ll call a special legislative session and force some awkward corruption votes on the Republican leadership. Remember, several state Republicans, Rubio among them, are currently being investigated by the FBI for using party funds for personal expenses.

And while Crist is off his popularity highs, he’s still generally well-regarded by voters. Being forced out of the GOP doesn’t reflect well on the party. As former Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas noted on NPR prior to Crist’s switch, Democrats have been gaining in the state and now have a 700,000-voter registration advantage: “If a governor who’s so well-known and -liked by many decides to run as an Independent, it would have serious long-term negative effects on our party.”

If correct, the current triumphalism among Florida conservatives would certainly be short-lived.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).